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Night Climb

If there is one thing nobody likes, it is an unexpected phone call in the middle of the night. They never seem to bring good news.

I learned this the hard way in the days when I was working as a forestry officer in the karri country of south-western Western Australia. Over several years I received numerous phone calls in the middle of the night. In mid-summer they would invariably bring unwelcome news of a bushfire, for the control of which I would then become responsible.

And so it was on this occasion.

It was January 1972, and I was the Forests Department’s DFO at Pemberton. With my wife and family, I lived in a forestry house just down the hill from the office. Being the senior officer, my house had the only phone connected to the outside world (the rest of us were interconnected on the department’s private telephone system, and these were the days before mobile phones).

I can’t now remember the time the phone rang that night, but it must have been near midnight, because I was in bed and asleep when it rang. It was the ’PMG phone’ ringing, the one by the front door, not the forestry phone out on the back veranda.

“Roger” said a familiar voice when I answered, “John Jay here, I am reporting a fire”.

Johnny Jay was the Overseer of the department’s forestry gang at Northcliffe, a stolid young man, responsible, hard-working, softly-spoken and humorous. A typical forest workman of the day, salt of the earth. He lived on the family farm west of Northcliffe on Richardson Road, about 30 km south of Pemberton. He had been asleep, he told me, when some instinct woke him and he went out onto the front veranda of their old Groupie farmhouse. Looking across the paddocks to the north in the direction of Pemberton, he could see a large, pulsating glow in the sky – clearly a forest fire. It was impossible to say how far away it was, Johnny said, but wherever it was, he didn’t think it would be doing anyone any good.

I had a look from my front veranda but could see only the wall of dark trees to the north. I needed a better look, a vantage point. It was at that moment, I think, that I must have lost my presence of mind. I decided to climb the Pemberton HQ Lookout Tree, with a torch and a compass, and see if I could see the glow of the fire from up there, and get a bearing on it.

The HQ Lookout Tree was a tall karri, 40 m in height and right on the doorstep of the Pemberton office (the old forestry office, that is, not the current ultra-flash Parks and Wildlife HQ). This karri tree had been “pegged” in 1939. Pegging was the term used to describe the process of constructing a spiral ladderway of wooden pegs up the trunk of the tree, and a lookout platform on top.

The HQ Tree was only the second karri tree to be pegged, the first in the Pemberton district, and it provided good visibility over the forests and farms out to the west and south-west. However, the outlook to the thousands of hectares of State forests to the east, was blocked by a high ridge running out to the top of the Burma Road. So, in the mid-1940s a decision was taken to develop a new lookout tree on this high point. Originally called East Tree, it was later re-named Gloucester Tree (and is still there today). The Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George VI and Governor-General of Australia at that time, had visited the tree during construction of the lookout, and had shown mild interest, so the Tree was named after him.

Gloucester Tree, one year after construction, in 1949

Because of its limitations, the old HQ Lookout Tree was never seen as a permanent lookout, and no lookoutman’s cabin was built on the top of it. There was the usual spiral ladderway, but at the top only a rough timber “crow’s nest”, just a timber platform, open on all sides and without a roof or guard-rails.

After Gloucester Tree came into service (in 1948), the HQ Lookout Tree was more or less abandoned – no maintenance was carried out and the ladderway became insecure and the crow’s nest rickety. I had climbed about half-way up once many years previously just to have a look around, but I had given it away as unsafe and descended.

The Pemberton HQ Lookout Tree, shortly after construction in 1939. A metal peg has been driven in between each of the wooden pegs and a “safety” set of back pegs installed.

What drove me to climb this tree, in the middle of a moonless night, I will never know. I doubtless felt a duty to locate the bushfire and arrange for its control if necessary. This was my job, after all. And it was important that Johnny Jay knew I had taken his warning seriously.

Anyway, I did it. I had been up and down the other karri lookout trees (there were five working tree lookouts in those days) maybe more than a hundred times over the years, and I never thought much of it. I was young and fit, and had a good head for heights. But this climb was scary. One of the wooden pegs had broken off and I had to climb around it on the back pegs. Most of the metal pegs were loose or dipped alarmingly when you put your weight on them. The crow’s nest, when I reached it, was absolutely decrepit. The timbers must have been karri and the white ants were into them. It was also windy and the tree was swaying about. All the lookout trees sway, but on this occasion the insecure footing, the heavy wind and the dark night made it seem worse.

However, I easily located the fire. The great, flickering glow in the sky was away to the north, probably a long way north. I knew from experience that forest fires are always further away than they appear from the smoke-cloud or night-time glow, and this one looked to be well beyond my jurisdiction. I wasted no time, took a compass bearing and made the ghastly climb back to earth. Then I went in to the office and phoned my counterpart Alistair Mather at Manjimup. Alistair was also awake; indeed, he was on the job in his office, controlling the firefighting operations. The fire was in the Middlesex area and the Manjimup forestry crews were dealing with it as we spoke. No help was needed from me.

Phew! I put through a quick call to Johnny Jay and walked back home.

It had been a foolhardy escapade, I thought, over a brandy. I had told nobody what I was going to do, and there were several things that could have gone wrong. In hindsight, the sensible thing would have been to ring Alistair Mather in the first place, or at least get into my car and drive up to the Cross Roads and get a handle on the location of the fire from there. On the other hand, it had certainly been an adventure, something my mate Jack Bradshaw and I could laugh about the next time I saw him. Jack and I had once been fellow-lookout men on Gloucester and Gardner Trees back when we were forestry students.

Ellen, incidentally, who had also been awoken by the phone call in the middle of the night, had stayed in bed and lay awake until I got home. Eventually when I climbed into bed and her warm embrace, she asked “Are you alright?”. I said I was … and for the second time that night realised what a lucky man I was.

I was the last person to climb that tree. The next day I arranged for my carpenter Vern Saw to remove the bottom five metres of the ladder so as to discourage future adventurers. Many years later the tree was felled and the stump removed, the justification being that it had become dangerous, dropping branches, bark and leaves onto the office roof and people and vehicles down below. I was sorry to hear about the demise of the old HQ Lookout Tree – I would have preferred to see the office moved and the tree preserved, even if only as a reminder of that scary night climb.

Sept 2021

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